Friday, September 10, 2010 | By: Unknown

Newspaper Founded By Drug Barons

Updated (partial) on October 24, 2010

Part III of Newsies in the Nineteenth Century
1843-1863 Hong Kong Register 香港紀錄報

The Hong Kong Register was the successor of Canton Register, China’s first English newspaper and was headed by Philadelphian merchant W.W. Wood. But Wood was only the frontman; the newspaper was in fact founded and funded by James Matheson, partner of William Jardine in the opium firm of Jardine, Matheson and Co., with the help of his nephew Alexander Matheson. The princely opium house wanted a trade newspaper they can control but  want to be hush-hush about their involvement, to the extent that Matheson, the uncle, purposely moved to Macau during the time when the Canton Register was launched [1]. The first issue of Canton Register was printed in 1827 and was printed every two weeks. The newspaper moved to Macau along with the exodus of British merchants in May 1839 and from Macau to Hong Kong in June 1843. It was then renamed Hong Kong Register and continued to publish until its closure in 1863. As the trade paper for the foreign mercantile community in China, the Hong Kong Register contained information such as two pages of Price Current and carried stories / editorials that tend to serve the interest of foreign traders at the risk of being incitant.

[1] This is an extract of a letter sent from Alexander Matheson in Canton to James Matheson in Macau on November 16, 1827 in which the nephew explained measures being taken to conseal the connection between the paper and the Mathesons.

“... I mean to disavow any connection with the paper, further than my having hitherto assisted Wood from motives of friendship. With regard to the Press, it will be proper to state to them (Rudi Butt notes: some people began to question if the paper was in any way connected to the Mathesons), that you made an arrangement with Wood, before the paper was established, that if he chose he might take the Press at prime cost, and that as the paper has been successful beyond our expectation, Wood has availed himself of this arrangement, so that the Press is no longer your property. This will screen you from all responsibility. I should also think it prudent to remove the press to some other place, to make it appear more evident that you are entirely unconnected with the business…”
The Hong Kong Register was published weekly and only became a journal in 1859; meanwhile, it published eight other newspapers / supplements at different time period. They were: General Price Current, Mercantle Register, and Shipping List (1843-1845); Hong Kong Register and Government Gazette (April - September 1844, 1853-1855); Overland Register and Price Current (1845-1859, July 1860 - 1861);  The Register’s Advertiser (1853-1854); Hong Kong Register Daily Supplement (1859); China Chronicle, Hong Kong Register and Eastern Advertiser (January - June 1860); Overland China Chronicle (January - June 1860); and Hongkong Register Daily Advertiser (June 1860 - 1861).

The first publisher and editor of the Register William Whitman Wood ( arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1825 from Philadelphia. Son of celebrated actors Burke and Juliana Westray Wood, he was said to be a person of great versatility, mentally and materially. After heading and editing the Canton Register for a number of years, he worked for the American opium firm of Russell and Co. in Guangzhou. He left Canton in 1833 and settled in Manila where he managed a coffee and sugar plantation in Jala-Jala and coincidentally became the first person to introduce photograph to the the Philippines. He later joined Russell, Sturgis and Co. in Manila and there he died. Wood is remembered by his book - Sketches of China.

John Slade succeeded Wood as the Newspaper’s publisher and editor in 1831. I don’t have much information on Slade except that he was said to be a gentleman of good classic attainments and a Chinese scholar, he is well-remembered by his book - Narrative of the late proceedings and events in China published in 1839 (check my Google Library). He was one of the first land buyers in Hong Kong in 1842. A year later he moved with the newspaper and settled here, but not for long, he died from fever in August 1843, about two months after moving from Macau. Slade, essentially Hong Kong Register's first editor and publisher, was succeeded by John Cairns.

In 1847, a Lieutenant Sergeant of the 95th Royal Irish Regiment objected to a comment appeared in the Register in which he was quoted as an “informer” and assaulted and battered the editor John Cairns. Cairns brought charges against the Lieutenant and was awarded $1,000 damages. Another entry in the history I could find on Cairns was that he, together with Robert Strachan, a small business owner who later became the editor and proprietor of the Register, and Edward Farncomb, Hong Kong’s first enrolled solicitor, who styled themselves as the Trustees of the Hong Kong Theatrical Company, bought a plot of land from crooked government auctioneer and Hong Kong’s first licensee of Opium monopoly George Duddell. The land lot was situated around Wyndham Street and Wellington Street behind the old Hong Kong Club whereupon the theatrical group had erected the Victoria Theatre. The first performance in the new theatre was on November 1, 1848 under the patronage of the third governor George Bonham. The Trustee conveyed the lot back to Duddell because of financial difficulties, and the theatre then used for a mixed of performances, balls and assemblies by short-term lease. The theatre faced its final curtain in 1859 where it was up for auction. I know not who bought it and what had the new owner done with it. I could find out, but that would be material for another story. An unusual observation on Cairns as made in some material I read described him as “too kind hearted for a journalist”, that to me is surely a compliment.

The ownership of the Register changed hands in 1849. The new proprietor was originally a Scottish merchant captain, Robert Strachan, of the merchantman Scotland, who arrived in China in 1838. He worked for the opium firm of W.T. Gemmell and Co. in Canton (Guangzhou) and was one of the few Briton who stayed behind in Canton after the second exodus of British merchant in 1843. After befriended by Andrew Jardine, nephew of William Jardine, whilst in Canton he became an agent of Jardine Matheson and Co. This was what he said of Hong Kong then, "The Island of Hongkong will be one of the most considerable marts for trade in British possession in the course of a few years," He bought the Register in 1949 and became its proprietor until 1860. There was a conflicting entry in the “Hong Kong Directory 1859” that said Richard A. Long Philips was proprietor of the Hong Kong Register in 1859. Strachan edited the Register for a brief while in 1860. There was a not so flattering entry of Strachan in history - On August 19, 1851, he was fined $15 by the Chief Magistrate for thrashing (I do not know if this was only an expression of the one who wrote this, or Strachan physically beat the man with a whip) a neighboring Chinese silversmith who had disturbed him in the middle of the night on a Sunday.

William Henry Mitchell succeeded Cairns as editor in 1849. Mitchell came to China as a colonial officer. He was a clerk in the British consular office in Amoy (Xiamen) and in 1844 became a Consular Assistant. He ran a small mercantile firm in Hong Kong, the Mitchell and Co. between 1846 and 1847. After leaving the Register in early 1850, he was appointed Assistant Police Magistrate, Sheriff, Provost Marshal, Coroner, and Marshal of the Vice-admiralty Court. He was already a Justice of the Peace (official) on March 28, 1850. He was accused by the first Attorney General Thomas Chisholm Anstey QC in June 1856 of extorting money from prisoners while in the office of Sheriff and Acting Chief Magistrate.

Thurston Dale (b.1819-d.1850) was appointed editor after Mitchell left in 1850, but died a few months later. He was succeeded by William F. Bevan (b.1819-d.1858) who kept the job until his death eight years later. Bevan was responsible for the printing in 1852 of a catalog of books kept in the Victoria Library & Reading Room, essentially Hong Kong's first library, which was established in c.1848 in the form of a club. Bevan was assisted by Andrew Dixson, who was the Secretary of the Library in 1852, and again for 1852-53. Richard A. Long Philips took over as editor in 1859 but for one year; he was also the publisher for the same period. A number of editors had come and gone in 1960. Canadian Malcolm Macleod succeeded Philips, who in turn was succeeded by Register owner Robert Strachan, and then during the second half of the year there was James C. Beecher, an American missionary hailed from Hanover, New Hampshire. Two James were appointed editors in 1861, James Jeffrey and James L. Brown. The last publisher of the newspaper, who succeeded Malcolm Macleod in 1861, was Henry M. Levy. I found no information about Levy.

James C. Beecher
James C. Beecher (b.1828-d.1886) was the youngest child of Rev. Dr. Lyman and Harriet Porter Beecher []. After graduation from the Dartmouth University, the young Beecher became a sailor and ventured to the Far East, arriving in China for the first time in 1849. He then served five years as a ship’s officer in the East India trade. Beecher returned from the sea and attended Andover Theological Seminary, and there he married Ann Morse, a widow with a young child. The couple left for Canton (Guangzhou) where they served as missionaries, and there Beecher was appointed Seaman’s Chaplain for Whampoa. He left China in 1861 to go home and fight in the American Civil War. I do not know when he came to Hong Kong and why he was appointed editor of the Register. His wife, Ann Morse, returned to the States two years earlier suffered from drug and alcohol addiction and died in 1863. During the Civil War, Beecher served in the First Long Island Regiment as chaplain, and then the 141st New York Volunteers as a lieutenant colonial. In 1863 he was appointed to recruit an African regiment, the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers. The regiment was reorganized in 1864 as the 35th United States Colored Troops and was under the command of Beecher, who was now a full colonel. After the Civil War, Beecher served as pastor at different churches in New York. In 1881, he suffered from a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Dr. Gleason's water cure sanitarium in Elmira, New York - the same institution Ann Morse spent her final years. Beecher took his own life while in Elmira. James C. was a half brother of famous abolitionist and novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896), and Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887), a prominent Congregationalist minister, social reformer, abolitionist, and public speaker.

I found no information on the Register for the period between 1861 and 1863. When I do I will write more on this topic, until then, this is all I can tell you about Hong Kong's first trade paper.

- END -


kaushal said...

thanks for all these useful information...
it's a rich source to know more about Hong Kong.


Paresh Kumar Bhoi
M.Phil ELE
EFL-U, Hyderabad,India

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